With the caveat that anyone who purports to predict the future inevitably ends up looking stupid, there are some obvious answers:
They’ll probably be sorta mad at us for blowing through the planet’s resources in just a couple of generations, like teenagers decimating the liquor cabinet in a single unsupervised weekend binge. Or for rendering the Earth inhospitable to human life for the next hundred thousand years, not out of ignorance or stupidity — we’ve known about the warming effects of carbon in the atmosphere for a hundred years — but just because we wanted to own cool things and drive everywhere. Or for the holocaust of the Anthropocene — exterminating hundreds of thousands of species who’ve lived on this planet for aeons, including plants that might’ve been cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or cancer. For these and other heedless crimes against our descendants, animals, and the planet, we may be judged no more leniently than the neighbors at Birkenau.
They may also be appalled by the elaborate fantasies to which we frantically devoted our attention while the world was burning down around us. Our uncritical addiction to the internet will probably look about as cool as those children of the 1950s drooling and stupefied by the tube. And, thinking back on cultural milestones, like Amos ’n’ Andy or The Jazz Singer, now discreetly airbrushed out of our history, I have to wonder what what seems to us like innocent fun that’ll someday be disowned. The fact that the hero of so many of our stories was always a white guy, and the black guy his wisecracking sidekick, will seem as obviously an artifact of a racist society as Leni Riefenstahl. (I confess to hoping that the battles between Inspector Clouseau and Kato will survive the purge.) And I sometimes wonder whether it’s possible to imagine a future when our countless posters of movie stars posing with guns will look about as heroic as the rampant Klansman who graced the poster for Birth of a Nation.
The circle of inclusion — who’s granted equal citizenship, full humanity — has been gradually expanding throughout history (sporadic reactionary contractions like the current one notwithstanding), and it seems fair to extrapolate it will continue to encompass more and more people — perhaps even what we call “things.” What if mores evolve until it’s considered self-evident that animals feel and fear just as much, are as deserving of empathy and compassion, as human beings? Will our descendants buy the defense that we, uh, just didn’t know any better? Could we not hear the screaming in the slaughterhouses, the lobsters clanging at the lid? Didn’t the condemned shit themselves with terror in the abattoirs? How, they’ll wonder, did we ever convince ourselves that the animals we ate and wore and tortured had inner lives and personalities any less complex than the ones we doted on and spoke to and mourned?
Still, it’s easier for me to imagine a future when we’re denounced for our cruelty to animals than one in which we’re held accountable for our perfectly sensible rationales for abusing or neglecting our fellow human beings. Novelist Brian Morton wrote in a recent essay: “When we’re texting or using social media, we don’t tend to be troubled by the thought that the cobalt in our phones may have been extracted by 10-year-olds in Katanga working 12-hour shifts for a dollar a day.”
I can’t even blame the insulating effect of globalization for my own complicity in the economy of cruelty. Last week, walking home in New York City, I passed a man asleep or passed out (but probably not dead) in a wheelchair, a puddle of urine beneath him. This sort of abject squalor is as common a sight in New York as rats or cabs; I felt the usual passing throb of pity/guilt/disgust and kept walking. I hope that someday people will be enlightened enough to despise me for this. I hope it’ll be unfathomable how we all apparently accepted that it was okay and made sense for some people to have literally millions of times more money, power, comfort, and freedom — and could afford to live longer — than others.
Sometimes the world looks like one vast, uncontrolled Stanford Prison Experiment.
We maintain and police these economic boundaries between individuals as fearfully, and lethally, as our national borders. Financially, I am Norway; that guy was the Congo. Lots of (older, richer) people still mock and patronize you if you even try to imagine any system superior to free-market capitalism, which has gutted civil society and laid waste to the world. In her speech at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin compared capitalism to the divine right of kings; I like to believe that it’ll someday look like just as transparent a scam. We can only hope that members of a saner society will look back on us the way we do at citizens of the Communist bloc: as dupes or captives of a brutal ideology, rather than true believers or active collaborators.
The corollary of my fear that this great country will someday look like a bellicose, patriarchal police state— a fat Sparta — is the hope that it’ll look that way to a saner, more humane civilization, a space-age Athens. But perhaps, as a writer who’s putting his dwindling hopes on posthumous recognition, I place too much faith in posterity. Aren’t I just projecting my own ethical wish list onto some vaguely imagined utopia? Isn’t this notion of future generations as some superior moral arbiter sort of like the belief in an afterlife that’ll render ultimate judgment, sort ’em all out? Won’t the people of twenty, or fifty, or even a thousand years from now just be a different bunch of assholes?